Launching George W. In Politics

By John Gizzi (Human Events, 01/01/99)

Originally published in Human Events (January 1, 1999)


By John Gizzi

Long before he was twice elected governor of his state and boomed for the Republican presidential nomination, well before he was his father’s political trouble-shooter in residence, and even before he made his maiden political voyage as a losing candidate before Congress from Texas in 1978, George W. Bush cut his political eye-teeth as a travel aide for a winning U.S. Senate campaign in Florida.

Interestingly, the person who signed him on is today a high-profile national conservative: James L Martin, head of the conservative seniors group Sixty-Plus that is a rival to the liberal National Council of Senior Citizens and the American Association of Retired Persons.

“I wouldn’t be as presumptuous as to say I launched George W.’s political career,” Martin told me during a recent lunch at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington. “You really can’t say that about someone who practically grew up in politics. But it is true that, back in 1968, George wanted to do something in politics between his graduation from Yale and service in the Air National Guard and we were in a position to accommodate him.”

In early 1967, Martin-then top aide to Florida’s stalwart conservative Rep. Edward J. Gurney (R.)–was addressing the newly elected House Republican class and their staffs on a panel sponsored by the National Republican Congressional Committee. Martin, who addressed the incoming lawmakers “on the use of that forgotten medium, radio,” was of particular interest to the audience because most knew that his boss Gurney planned to run for the U.S. Senate the following year in the Sunshine State, which had never elected a Republican senator since Reconstruction.

A fellow panelist who caught Martin’s attention that day was Jimmy Allison, who had managed the winning campaign of freshman Rep. George Bush (R-Tex.) and was setting up his Washington office. Following the session, Martin took Allison for coffee and learned that he did not intend to run Bush’s office, that campaigns were his love, and that he would soon set up a political consulting firm with media maestro Harry TreleavenĀ¾ later famed as the author of the 1968 slogan “Nixon’s the One.” (Treleaven died just two weeks ago.)

James L. Martin, now head of Sixty-Plus, gave George W. Bush his first political job in a much-watched U.S. Senate race in 1968.

“I immediately recommended Jimmy to Ed Gurney to run our race full-time,” recalled Martin, “and he was also impressed, but said, `I have to clear it with George first.”‘ On the House floor, Maine-born, Harvard-educated Gurney asked Massachusetts-born, Yale-educated Bush if it was all right to offer the post to Allison. Bush heartily agreed.

By the close of 1967, Allison had moved his family to Florida (“In those days, out-of-state consultants were unheard of,” said Martin) and launched the budding Gurney campaign with $55,000 in seed money. The amount swelled as the charismatic Gurney attracted legions of young conservative volunteers (such as the attractive female canvassers known as “Gurney Girls”), and gained ground on his Democratic opponent, former Gov. (1960-64) LeRoy Collins (or “Liberal LeRoy,” as Gurney dubbed him).

“The race was getting so much attention we decided we needed a press plane and someone to take care of e reporters,” said Martin. “That’s when Jimmy said that young George Bush had just graduated from Yale and was anxious to do something before his Air National Guard stint began. I said, `Fine,’ and again, Ed cleared everything with George’s father.”

So the young Texan who would one day be governor rode the surplus propeller-driven plane with which the Gurney campaign shuttled reporters. The eager Bush oversaw their access to Gurney, Allison and Martin (who traveled separately in a twin-engine plane known as “The Green Hornet”). Gurney won the much-watched Senate race over Collins with a whopping 59% of the vote.

Gurney died in 1996 at age 82. Jimmy Allison, so now deceased, went on to become deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee and a respected political consultant. Jim Martin traverses the country these days, leaking on liberals who charge conservatives with hostility toward Social Security and being frequently mistaken-by Ethel Kennedy and even by CNN staffers-with look-alike ‘red Turner.

Unlike many conservatives, Martin has no problems with George W. Bush as a presidential candidate and outs his old friend from Texas before conservative audiences. “You get to know someone pretty well in a campaign and George W. is as conservative now as he was then,” he says. “And as for those who say he got where he as on his father’s name, well, I point out that his father’s name sure didn’t help him when he lost his first race for Congress (to then-conservative Democrat Kent Hance, now a Republican) back in `78.”

Gov. Bush fondly recalls his first campaign foray to friends and his association with warmly regarded conservative Gurney. “When I informed him of Ed’s death,” Martin said, “he wrote me to say that Ed Gurney was an outstanding senator and a great American.”